Prime minister David Cameron strayed onto dangerous ground earlier this week when, during a lightning visit to British forces in Afghanistan, he stated that our official withdrawal from that war-torn country by the end of 2014 would be with heads held high and a sense of ‘mission accomplished’.
Although he claimed during Prime Minister’s Question Time in the Commons yesterday that he had carefully qualified the pronouncement, it did spark inevitable comparisons with US President George W. Bush’s infamous ‘mission accomplished’ declaration on board the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on 1st May 2003, just as the prolonged and bitter struggle to subdue insurgent activity in Iraq was about to begin.
The truth is that British forces, which have lost over 450 men and women killed, have performed pretty well, within their limitations, in Afghanistan. As in the Iraq campaign, they have been criticised from time to time by their American colleagues and, arguably, could be said now to be just ‘hanging on’ in specific areas of Helmand province rather than – as once embarrassingly predicted by Labour defence minister John Reid – ever having had a realistic chance of subduing the Taliban and establishing proper law and order ‘without a shot being fired’.
Today the British media is carrying an allegation from General Sir Nick Houghton, head of the Armed Forces, that such is the decimation of its manpower, Britain soon risks becoming a military ‘hollow force’, possessed of tons of hi-tech equipment but with too few people to man it properly.
British politicians loved strutting the world stage – pontificating about human rights and the iniquities inflicted, or threatened, by sundry dictators and villainous regimes – and potentially threatening to intervene overseas whenever they think this might be a popular move. The trouble is, when times are tough and they feel it necessary to cull military budgets and manpower, they risk ridicule by reducing Britain’s military capacity to the point where – sooner or later – our statesmen are going to place themselves in a position where their mouths write cheques that our forces cannot redeem.
Furthermore, on the complex question of whether Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan has been a success or not, the verdict of military and political commentators is currently ‘out’. Or rather, they have begun arriving …
Here’s a rather forceful, but very readable, one from Seumas Milne, writing for The Guardian – AFGHANISTAN